We had mixed feelings when, in late 2000, our local education authority told us it had been awarded a DfES grant to develop a behaviour support unit - and that it would like it to be at our school. Was this an endorsement of our positive attitude towards inclusion, or a dig at our attempts to manage challenging pupil behaviour effectively?
We put our paranoia aside and began to assess what the school could offer: a superb teaching and support staff prepared to embrace change, a deputy head who cared passionately about inclusion and who was prepared to lead the initiative, and students who, in the main, responded well to receiving support.
We said yes, but with conditions. First, the base would be called the "Learning Intervention Centre" (LIC) and it had to be in the heart of the school physically, not on the edges in a mobile classroom. Second, it needed to be staffed by specialists who wanted to be there. Third, it couldn't be seen as a sin bin for every "difficult" youngster who was hard to teach.
Dave Cuthell, the centre's manager and main teacher, was seconded from the LEA's pupil referral unit, and Heidi Cardy, an experienced classroom assistant, appointed. Meantime, Ann Duff, one of our deputy heads, and her team devised a set of policies to guide the centre's work. We were clear about the aims:
* to build students' self-esteem
* to help pupils develop the skills they needed to succeed in mainstream classes
* to promote and develop positive attitudes towards learning.
We needed to support some students struggling to cope with mainstream classes; others needed intensive, short-term emotional and behavioural support. We also needed a staging post for those returning to school following long-term illness, temporary exclusion or school refusalphobia, and we needed to support a small number of "disaffected" students who consistently disrupted classes. But our ambition was to enable all students to get back into full-time classes as quickly and successfully as possible.
A successful European Social Fund bid meant the centre was well-equipped with ICT facilities. We opened in September 2001. But the first year was tough. Many staff remained unconvinced and asked difficult questions. How could we justify two members of staff with such a small number of students - usually between six and eight, sometimes 12? Why was the centre not packed with all the difficult children every lesson? Why was the best-resourced room in the school set aside for a small number of selected students?
In its first year, we achieved great success in getting (and keeping) some students who had been away for a long time. The LIC also gave superb support to some very bright exam year students who were finding the pressure and stress of mainstream too much. I was also amazed to see how many youngsters used the centre "space" to enable them to cope without resorting to truanting.
But it has only been in this, its second, year, that the crucial small group of disaffected and badly behaved youngsters has visibly started to improve. These "clients", mainly boys, have been our greatest challenge. They still demonstrate some disruptive behaviour, but at least they haven't been excluded.
The LEA has provided great support and the centre has become a focal point for our inclusion and multi-agency work. It is going from strength to strength - I just hope its funding continues because I believe its most effective work will take place in the future.
So what have I learned to date? It seems to me that managing challenging behaviour is best tackled with a range of intervention strategies at an early stage - the younger the children, the better. I am a great believer in the Sure Start initiative for early years. To do a proper job requires time, energy, the ability to take a long-term view and a willingness to challenge the notion that "naughty children must be excluded". I believe a tiny number of children are so emotionally damaged by the time they get to a mainstream secondary that they will not cope. Heads must have options other than exclusion. Education, health and social services must work together to support vulnerable students to remain in full-time mainstream education whenever possible.
Chris Tweedale is head of John Masefield high school, Ledbury, Herefordshire. He also works part-time as an education adviser for the school workforce unit at the DfES. The views expressed here are his own